Last week, when Syria's President-for-life, Bashar Assad, convened the 10th Baath Party congress in Damascus, he promised to loosen the party's monopoly on power to encourage greater political participation among the country's disaffected population. But Assad's concession was less a sign of noblesse oblige than a reflection of just how weak and isolated the nearly 60-year-old party has become.
Ever since the U.S. invasion of Iraq put an end to the only other Baathist regime in the region, Syria's Baath Party has been forced to cast aside what little remained of the quixotic, transnationalist ideals that gave birth to the movement seven decades ago in favor of a far more modest domestic agenda of political and economic reform. In his opening address to the congress, Assad vowed — rote-like, as Baath Party leaders always do these days — to continue to pursue "unity, freedom and socialism" among the Arab peoples. But his delivery made it clear that bringing together the Arab world was no longer a pressing concern.
This was a far cry from the tone of the first Baath Party congress, held in Damascus on April 7, 1947. The fervent ideology of pan-Arabism then ruled the day, and the principal goal was nothing less than creation of a single Arab superstate.
Pan-Arabism, which had emerged as a response to Western colonial domination in the Middle East, sought to reassert Arab power through an appeal for ethnic unity across political and territorial boundaries. It found its first formal expression in the creation of the Arab League in 1945, which gave a single voice to the newly independent Arab states after World War II. But the primary channel through which pan-Arabism spread was unquestionably the Baath Party.
"Baath" is the Arabic word for "renaissance," and it was precisely as a reawakening of the Arab spirit that the movement's ideology was conceived in the 1930s by Syrian activists and political philosophers such as Michel Aflaq and Zaki al-Arsuzi. The Baath preached a revolutionary mixture of Arab nationalism and secular socialism that appealed to Syria's intellectuals and university students, many of whom had become disillusioned with the other great movement of political unity in the Middle East, pan-Islamism.
After the catastrophic defeat of the Arab forces in Palestine in 1948, the Baath Party's ideals began spreading through the rest of the Middle East: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen all drew heavily from the Baath's pan-Arabist ideology.
In Iraq, the movement found especially fertile ground. Iraq's Baath Party, established in 1954, was instrumental in the revolution that put an end to British control of Iraq in 1958. Yet almost immediately upon coming to power in 1963, Iraq's Baathists — and particularly the younger generation led by Saddam Hussein — rejected straightforward pan-Arabism in favor of a distinctly Iraqi nationalism that looked not to Arabia but to ancient Mesopotamia for its symbols of cultural and ethnic unity.
By the time Hussein came to power a few years later, Baathism in Iraq was little more than an instrument of Sunni domination and political oppression over Iraq's Shiites and Kurds. Hussein's regime permanently severed the Iraqi and Syrian Baathists. While Syria's Baath Party flourished under the direction of President Hafez Assad, who succeeded in implementing the party's socialist principles in nearly every sector of society while remaining nominally faithful to its pan-Arabist roots, the Baath Party in Iraq was ruthlessly purged of its old guard and replaced with members of Hussein's family and tribe.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq dissolved that country's Baath Party, a move that had drastic consequences. Unemployed and disgruntled party loyalists, particularly those in the purged Iraqi military, quickly formed the core of a rapidly metastasizing insurgency. According to U.S. military estimates, nearly four-fifths of insurgent attacks in Iraq can be attributed to these Baathist loyalists. Earlier this week it was suggested that Baathist violence had spread even further, as officials in Iran blamed groups "close" to Iraq's Baathists for a series of preelection bombings.
Lately, attention has turned back to Syria's Baath Party. A new generation of Baath leaders has been struggling to redefine traditional Baathism as an ideology of nationalism, patriotism and even democracy. Many of these so-called neo-Baathists initially looked to Bashar Assad to lead the party reforms. But despite increasing international and domestic pressure, Assad has thus far taken few steps toward reform. Still, there are many Syrians who confidently predict an eventual voluntary "de-Baathification" of the country, one that would match the forced de-Baathification of Iraq. Whether this will happen under the younger Assad's rule, however, remains to be seen.
Reza Aslan is the author of "No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam" (Random House, 2005).